The forthcoming European Parliament elections in 2019 will probably determine the fate of the Spitzenkandidaten process to select the President of the European Commission.
Five years after it was first introduced, the Spitzenkandidaten process remains contentious among national governments and has yet to prove in practice that it can enhance the democratic legitimacy of the EU
European Parliament elections have rarely drawn much attention. Paradoxically, as the parliament has become a more powerful actor in the EU institutional landscape, the average voter turnout across the member-states has continuously decreased from 62 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 2014. Turnout across countries varies greatly though. In Slovakia, the country with the lowest turnout in 2014, only 13% of the population voted compared to almost 90% in Belgium. Those who vote usually focus on domestic rather than European matters and often cast protest votes against national governments. As a result, the European Parliament elections have not conferred the much desired legitimacy on the EU that many critics believe it lacks.
The new procedure to appoint the President of the European Commission was introduced in 2014 with the aim of strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU. Traditionally, the position had been filled by European heads of state or government in backroom deals, which then had to be approved by the European Parliament. The Lisbon Treaty (2009), however, included a new and vague clause stipulating that, acting by qualified majority, the European Council should nominate a candidate “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament” (Article 17 VII of the Treaty on European Union). The European Parliament then votes on the respective candidate. Five out of the seven political groups in the European Parliament seized upon the ambiguous wording by nominating rival Spitzenkandidaten, pledging that the candidate from the most popular party in the elections would become the next President of the Commission.
Proponents of the Spitzenkandidaten innovation hope that it will personalise the campaigns; instil a European dimension; and demonstrate a clear link between election results and the role of the President of the European Commission; with the ultimate aim of increasing turnout and strengthening the democratic mandate of the Commission. The results of the 2014 election, however, were disappointing. Average voter turnout matched the previous all-time low, the Spitzenkandidaten were hardly known outside their home country, and the campaigns were largely fought on national, not European, topics. Only 5 per cent of the voters cited “influenc[ing] the choice of the President of the European Commission” as their main motivation for voting.
While the Spitzenkandidaten process was still in its infancy in 2014, the elections in 2019 will likely be the litmus test for it. Whether it will become a permanent feature of European politics depends, firstly, on whether the process is embraced by governments. Secondly, it will be contingent on whether the process leads to greater contestation among Spitzenkandidaten, increased importance of European topics among the public, and ultimately, higher turnout at the elections next May.
The early signs are not encouraging. National governments continue to be reluctant to concede the power to nominate the president of the Commission. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has argued forcefully for democratising the EU, opposes the procedure on the grounds that it will almost certainly mean that a candidate from the conservative EPP will become president (Macron’s La Republique en Marche! is not yet member of any group but likely to join ALDE). Further complications arise from the likely difficulties in building a majority after the elections. Current Polls suggest that the European People’s Party and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) together will no longer hold the majority of seats, which means that the liberal ALDE faction and the Greens may become the king/queenmaker in the process of electing the next President. Whether they will consent to a candidate from one of the two main parties or propose a compromise candidate who has not stood as a Spitzenkandidat remains to be seen.
The choice of the EPP and S&D Spitzenkandidaten has also played into the hands of the critics of the process. At the EPP Congress in Helsinki in November, delegates picked the German Manfred Weber over former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb. Not only inexperienced in government, Weber is an apologist for the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian Fidesz Party under Victor Orbán, which remains a member of the EPP. The S&D, meanwhile, nominated Frans Timmermans, a champion of the rule of law in the EU, without a rival candidate, undermining the notion that the Spitzenkandidaten process would lead to greater contestation within parties.
Moreover, the EPP alongside Eurosceptic parties voted down a proposal to create transnational seats in the Parliament to overcome the national focus of European elections. With Brexit, the 73 British seats in the parliament will become vacant and a range of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from primarily ALDE and the Green party suggested transforming some of the formerly British seats into pan-EU seats, which would be accountable to all European voters. At the moment, MEPs, while representing all EU citizens, are elected in national constituencies, thus incentivising campaigning on national issues. These decisions have alienated many heads of state or government affiliated with ALDE, whose support the EPP would need to push through Weber in the European Council; there are currently as many leaders in the European Councils affiliated with ALDE as with the EPP.
A pretend democratic choice that would subsequently be overturned, however, would only fuel the public’s disenchantment with the EU. It is now the responsibility of Weber and Timmermans as well as other Spitzenkandidaten like Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout of the Greens to play their part in vindicating the process. They need to have clearly distinguishable and concrete manifestos that offer alternative visions of the future of the EU. Their campaigns must also be embedded in a wider effort by pro-European parties to actively promote a debate about European integration rather than depoliticising the EU. Only then will European citizens (and the media) take notice.
At a time of growing euroscepticism and increasing technocratic decision-making insulated from European citizens, the EU must develop more democratic legitimacy. The Spitzenkandidaten process is no panacea to heal the EU’s democratic deficit, but it can be a small step towards greater supranational parliamentary democracy.
Leonard Schuette is the Clara Marina O’Donnell fellow (2018-19) at the CER